Should Open Web Advocates Stay Independent?

When it was revealed Wednesday that developer and noted open web champion Tantek Celik was joining the Mozilla Foundation, a wave of congratulations swept across Twitter and the blogosphere. But not everyone was happy to learn that Celik — the former chief technologist at Technorati and before that an open standards advocate at both Microsoft (s msft) and Apple (s aapl) — was joining the company behind the Firefox browser. Ben Metcalfe, a programmer and startup adviser, said on Twitter that while he was happy for Celik, his hiring meant that “none of the open web usuals remain independent.”

By “open web usuals,” Metcalfe was likely referring to prominent open advocates like Chris Messina and David Recordon, both of whom over the past several years have been among those leading the charge for open standards online, including developing and promoting the OpenID standard. Messina is now a Google (s goog) employee and Recordon works for Facebook. While both continue to promote open standards — Messina’s title is “open web advocate” and Recordon is “senior open programs manager” — they’re doing it from inside two of the world’s largest web companies, both of which have corporate interests as well as (presumably) a commitment to being open.

Is that a bad thing for the web? When Metcalfe’s post from Twitter appeared on Google Buzz, it drew a comment from a Google engineer named Adewale Oshineye, who said that instead of seeing Messina and the others as no longer independent, “[Y]ou could say that the ‘open web usuals’ have all found ways to make an even bigger impact.” Metcalfe said that he didn’t agree with this argument, however, because “most of them have had to ‘tone down’ their perspectives in their new fancy corporate jobs.” Oshineye subsequently agreed that “there’s a tension between influence and independence.” Indeed.

So do Messina and Celik and Recordon now have more influence over the openness of the decisions that get made at the world’s largest search company, the world’s largest social network and one of the world’s primary browser developers? Or are they spitting into the prevailing wind at these relatively gigantic organizations, all of which have their own corporate agendas? Although both Google and Facebook are open in many ways — Google more so than Facebook — they also have a clear interest in pursuing their own tactics online. And while the Mozilla Foundation isn’t a typical for-profit corporation, it has its own interests at heart as well.

The tension is clear, not just between these open advocates and their respective corporations, but also between those with conflicting views about what it means to be open. After Facebook launched the Open Graph protocol at the f8 conference, Messina wrote a post taking issue with the description of the Facebook initiative as being “open” at all. Recordon then wrote a blog post for O’Reilly in response, talking about how the protocol was a good thing for the open web.

Messina, Recordon and Celik would likely argue that they can have far more influence within the companies they work for than they could ever have by shouting from the sidelines — and that might even be true. But despite their best efforts, and their reputations as longtime champions of the open web, they are inevitably going to be seen (at least by some) as instruments of the corporations and entities that pay their salaries. In the end, all we can hope is that they have some success in moving those large organizations in the right direction, and that other open web proponents come along who can take over the role of independent web champion.

Update: Ben Metcalfe has written his own post about the loss of independents like Celik and Messina, as well as Joe Smarr (now at Google), Eran Hammer-Lahav (now at Yahoo) and Will Norris (now at Google).

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Duarte